Guilt by Association




Also Known As: Bad Company Fallacy, Company that You Keep Fallacy


Guilt by Association is a fallacy in which a claim is rejected because a person dislikes those who accept the claim. It has the following form:


Premise 1: A accepts claim C.

Premise 2: A is disliked.

Conclusion: Therefore, C is false


This is fallacious because how we feel about those who accept a claim does not disprove a claim. This can be illustrated with this silly example: “you might think that 1+1=2. But Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Joseph Stalin, and Ted Bundy all believed that 1+1=2. So, you shouldn’t believe it.”

The fallacy gets is psychological power from the fact that people do not like being associated with people they dislike. Hence, a person thinks they share a belief with people they dislike, they might be influenced to reject that belief. This rejection is not based on any defect in the claim itself but based on disliking the people who hold it.

This fallacy differs from the Ad Hominem and Genetic fallacies, although they are similar. In this fallacy, a claim is rejected because of its association with a person or group that is disliked. In the Ad Hominem and Genetic fallacies, a claim is rejected because of some (alleged) negative qualities of the source of the claim. These fallacies can be used together. For example, an Ad Hominem could be used to attack a person to get the audience to reject that person’s claim, then a Guilt by Association could be used that exploits the dislike generated by the Ad Hominem attack.

While it is not a fallacy to avoid associating with people you dislike, dislike does not justify the rejection of any claim. For example, most wicked and terrible people accept that the earth revolves around the sun and that lead is heavier than water. No reasonable person would reject these claims simply because this would put them in the company of people they dislike. This fallacy works best when the target audience already dislikes or has doubts about the claim. For example, a Democrat who already dislikes the claim that tax cuts for the rich benefit the poor would be more likely to be influenced by this fallacy than a Republican who likes the claim.  It can also be effective when the target audience is ignorant about the claim and does not yet have an opinion.

The fallacy’s effect can be enhanced by selecting associates of the claim that appear connected to the claim in a meaningful way. For example, a person might associate Stalin with a claim about socialism because Stalin was the authoritarian ruler of a state that was claimed to be socialist. As another example, a person might associate Mark Zuckerberg with a claim about social media.

Guilt by Association also works better when the associates of the claim are selected to maximize the dislike of the target audience. For example, if the fallacy is targeting Democrats or Republicans, it is usually easy to find specific politicians that will be especially disliked. The more targeted the fallacy, the less effective it will be on those outside the target group. It might even have a reverse effect on some. For example, if a Democrat used a reviled Republican for this fallacy, this might encourage certain Republicans to agree with the claim. Which takes us to the positive variant of this fallacy.

A reversal of this fallacy can be used to attempt to get people to accept a claim. This would be the Fallacy of Positive Association:


Premise 1: A accepts claim C.

Premise 2: A is liked.

Conclusion: Therefore, C is true.


This is poor reasoning because liking the person making a claim does not serve as evidence for the claim. As with Guilt by Association, it has only psychological force.

Defense: The defense against this fallacy is to keep in mind that even if people or groups you dislike accept a claim, it does not follow that they are wrong simply because you dislike them. As with many fallacies, you can often test the reasoning by using an innocuous or true claim in place of the claim being attacked in a suspected fallacy. For example, a person might be tempted to fall for a Guilt by Association using Stalin aimed at a claim that collective ownership is good. But if that claim was replaced with something like “1+1=2” or “dogs make good pets” the person might be more likely to recognize that the reasoning is bad.


Example #1:

Will and Kiteena are arguing about socialism. Kiteena is a pacifist and dislikes violence and violent people.


Kiteena: “I think that the United States should continue to adopt socialist programs. For example, I think that the government should take control of vital industries.”

Will: “So, you are for state ownership of industry.”

Kiteena: “Certainly. It is a great idea and will help make the world a less violent place.”

Will: “Well, you know Stalin also endorsed state ownership of industry. At last count he wiped out millions of his own people. Pol Pot of Cambodia was also for state ownership of industry. He also killed millions of his own people. The leadership of China is for state owned industry. They killed their own people in that square. So, are you still for state ownership of industry?”

Kiteena: “Oh, no! I don’t want to be associated with those butchers!”


Example #2:

Jen and Sandy are discussing the topic of welfare. Jen is politically conservative about most things but is a fervent anti-racist. Sandy is extremely liberal politically.


Jen: “I was reading over some studies of welfare, and I think it would be better to have people work for it. For example, people could do thing like pick up trash in public areas and even do skilled labor they are qualified for. This would probably make people feel better about themselves and it would get more out of our tax money.”

Sandy: “I see. So, you want to have the poor people out on the streets picking up trash for their checks? Well, you know that is exactly the position David Count endorses.”

Jen: “Who is he?”

Sandy: “I’m surprised you don’t know him, seeing how alike you two are. He was a Great Wizard for the Aryan Pure White League and is well known for his hatred of blacks and other minorities. With your views, you’d fit right in with his little racist club.”

Jen: “So, I should reject my view just because I share it with some racist?”

Sandy: “Of course.”


Example #3:

Libard and Ferris are discussing who they are going to vote for as the next department chair. Libard is a radical feminist, and she despises Wayne and Bill, who are two sexist professors in the department.


Ferris: “So, who are you going to vote for?”

Libard: ‘Well, I was thinking about voting for Jane, since she is a woman and there has never been a woman chair here. But I think that Steve will do an excellent job. He has a lot of clout in the university, and he is a decent person. I don’t think Jane has enough experience or connections yet to really get things done in these difficult times.”

Ferris: “You know, Wayne and Bill are supporting him. They really like the idea of having Steve as the new chair. I never thought I’d see you and those two pigs on the same side.”

Libard: “Well, maybe it is time that we have a woman as chair.”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More